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(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities should immediately release activists detained for peacefully protesting Egypt’s assembly law. The government should revoke the law or amend it to conform with international standards.

Prosecutors on June 23, 2014, renewed for four days the detention of 23 activists arrested on June 21 at a Cairo protest calling for the revocation of the assembly law and the release of anyone convicted under it. Among those held is Yara Sallam, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), one of Egypt’s leading human rights organizations. Authorities interrogated Sallam extensively about the work of the organization, the group said. 

“Egyptian authorities are detaining peaceful demonstrators for protesting a deeply restrictive protest law, and grilling a human rights defender about her organization’s work,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Anyone detained for violating the protest law should be free, unless they have been charged with a credible offense.”

Prosecutors are investigating the 23 activists on accusations of illegal assembly, possessing fireworks, damaging public property, and “the show of force with the aim of terrorizing citizens.” Police and men in civilian clothes armed with clubs and knives dispersed the June 21 protest soon after it began.

The protesters were calling for the release of those detained under Law 107 of 2013, issued by decree in November. The law effectively grants security officials discretion to ban any protest on very vague grounds, allows police officers to forcibly disperse any protest if a single protester throws a stone, and sets heavy prison sentences for offenses such as attempting to “influence the course of justice.”

The law also gives the Interior Ministry the right to ban any meeting “of a public nature” of more than 10 people in a public place, including meetings related to electoral campaigning. The law includes no exceptions for smaller demonstrations that would not cause disruption, or for urgent and spontaneous demonstrations.

Egyptian rights groups estimate that authorities have detained hundreds of people for attempting to carry out peaceful protests without seeking Interior Ministry permission. On June 11, the South Cairo Criminal Court sentenced 25 people, including the prominent activist Alaa Abdel-Fatah, to 15 years in prison and fined them EGP 100,000 (US$13,900) each for participating in a demonstration in front of the seat of Egypt’s upper house of parliament in November. On April 7, a Cairo appeals court upheld a  three-year sentence issued in December for Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, founders of the 6 April youth movement, and a blogger, Ahmed Douma, for participating in “an unauthorized protest” and assaulting police.

The United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association stated in his May 2012 report concerning requirements to notify the authorities about an upcoming protest that, “A notification should be subject to a proportionality assessment, not unduly bureaucratic and be required a maximum of, for example, 48 hours prior to the day the assembly is planned to take place.” He also said that “prior notification should ideally be required only for large meetings or meetings which may disrupt road traffic.”

On June 17, Cairo's Administrative Court agreed to refer to the Supreme Constitutional Court a suit brought by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights and the Center to Support the Rule of Law challenging the constitutionality of the protest law. Egypt’s current constitution, ratified by referendum in January, guarantees “the right to organize public meetings, marches, demonstrations and all forms of peaceful protests, without carrying arms of any kind, by serving a notification as regulated by law.”

“Activists protesting the unjust detention of others for protesting an unjust law now find themselves in detention and subjected to interrogation,” Stork said. “The detention of Yara Sallam raises concerns that authorities want to intimidate and silence Egyptian rights activists who have bravely criticized this law and other rights violations that have become routine since the military takeover last July.”

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